Today’s Just One matchup represents two camps within Hip Hop that were possibly as far apart as the Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden camps in the Democratic Party. Released seven days apart during the summer of 1996, De La Soul’s Stakes Is High and Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt are not only contrasting flavors in Hip Hop but both of these albums dropped at a time when the culture was changing. Pac and B.I.G. had been taken from us. The mindless testosterone of gangsta rap was starting to fade and Puff Daddy’s shiny suit reign was still ahead of us.
Personally, I had graduated from college and was facing the damnedest time landing a job. A dilemma that prompted my enrollment in graduate school while also equipping me with the grown-up awareness that things won’t always go as planned. I was in a melancholic place when I heard these albums; yet, I kind of sensed that things were changing for the better in my life and in the culture I love.
I’m hoping by now that we have a cadre of readers who enjoy these trips through nostalgia. If you are new, the premise is this: at a certain time, Hip Hop fans were faced with a purchasing choice while only having enough money for one of the two then-recently released albums, CDs, or cassettes. Understand that we use a 0-2 point scoring system in a couple of categories to determine which would have been the better initial purchase. The categories are:
- Pre-release history: What did we know about these artists prior to the reviewed albums’ release?
- Review of three songs that either were released as singles or had underground buzz.
- How did it age / does it still sound fresh? This is where it gets sticky. We try to step out of nostalgia and acknowledge how much of this album we would listen to today. Back in the day, I was geeked to cop Kool G. Rap & Polo’s Road to the Riches but when I listened to the record last week? Yeah man, nostalgia faded after two songs and I can’t say when I’ll play it again. It was hot when it dropped and yet, it’s showing it’s age.
- Game-Changer or Pace-Keeper: The game-changer will score higher. Like when we heard Busta Rhymes on “Scenario” – all of us was like “WHOA! this is a game-changer!” Years later, when you “put your hands where (his) eyes could see and (you were) straight buckwildin’ in the place to be” – Busta was still cool, but by then he was keeping pace with his familiar energetic style.
Got it? Cool. Let’s make it happen.
I’ll be upfront – I was a reluctant De La fan. Always respected them; yet, didn’t “get” them at first. However, my respect is rooted in their courage to switch things up and evolve. Their evolution helps me “hear” their lyrics better. I mean, 3 Feet High and Rising was a huge break from the norm. They could have stayed comfortable in that lane and became gimmicky (an example of this is the Insane Clown Posse), but they didn’t. They evolved. These dudes are the truth.
De La Soul – 2 points
Until other rappers brought it up as a means of dissing Jay-Z, I had sort of forgotten his “Hawaiian Sophie” cameo. Although I was attending school on the East Coast and had access to what was up and coming in Hip Hop, Jay-Z wasn’t on my radar. It wasn’t until I was hanging with my man, Jay, in Atlanta when “Ain’t No Ni***” started getting heavy airplay (along with “My Boo” by the Ghost Town DJs and “Whatz Up Whatz Up” by Playa Poncho – I said I was in Atlanta, man). But I don’t think any of us knew that he would become the cultural colossus he is today.
Jay-Z – 1 point
“Stakes Is High”: Hold on, there is no way we can reflect on this song without saying with “Vibes … vibrations.” Alright, now we can proceed. Stakes Is High was the first De La CD I purchased and since I was new to the CD track shuffle feature, the title track is the first song I heard. And boy! It was an indictment on the times!
I say G’s are making figures at a high regard
And ni***s dying for it nowadays ain’t odd
Investing in fantasies and not God
Welcome to reality, see times is hard
People try to snatch the credit, but can’t claim the card
Showing out in videos, saying they co-starred
See, s*** like that will make your mama cry
Better watch the way you spend it cause the stakes is high
De La Soul – 2 points, 4 total
“Ain’t No Ni***”: Wait a minute – to go from the “Stakes Is High” to “Ain’t No Ni***” captures this whole competition in a nutshell. Back to the song, because they use the same sample as EPMD’s “It’s My Thing”, I had to give this track a listen. Plus, Foxy Brown? Man, let me tell you, I just have thing for a feisty spirited lady and Foxy is definitely that.
Yet, this was the beginning of my appreciation for Jay’s witty off-liners like:
I’ve been sinnin’ since you been playin’ with Barbie and Ken and
You can’t change a player’s game in the 9th inning
Subject matter aside, if you know what you’re listening to, then you can acknowledge the craft.
Jay-Z – 2 points, 3 total
“The Bizness“: despite my lower scoring of Common’s first album in a previous essay, Rashid is my man. He is solid, consistent, and a great compliment to Pos and Dove / Dave. He captures the essence of the album when he spit:
Do you wanna be a MC, or do you wanna serve?
Do you wanna be dope, or do you wanna deal it?
Moreover, this is really when De La got me to rewinding and checking again for what they said. Like when the song opened with these bars:
I speak divine of God theories, no need to be high
Always exhale the facts ’cause I don’t inhale lie
Play the greater man’s game to bounce off my losses
So I can earn the acres (uhh) the houses (yeah) the horses (huh)
Of course it’s much greater than your Benz or your Lex
The engine to my comprehension is just too complex
De La Soul – 2 points, 6 total
“Brooklyn’s Finest”: In addition to coming of age with Hip Hop, I also came of age with comic books. Back in the day, there used to be a series called “Marvel Team-Up” where they would do one story with two stars who hadn’t shared a story together. When I first heard “Brooklyn’s Finest”, all I could hear was a Hip Hop Team-Up. To me and other fans who were just starting to know Jay-Z, this pound-for-pound, back-and-forth with B.I.G. really showed his promise.
While y’all pump Willie, I run up and stunt silly
Scared, so you sent your little mans to come kill me
But on the con-trilli, I packs the MAC-milli
Squeezed off on him, left them paramedics breathin’ soft on him
“What’s ya name?”
Who shot ya? Mob ties like Sinatra (uh)
Peruvians tried to do me in, I ain’t paid them yet
Tryin’ to push 700s, they ain’t made them yet
Rolex and bracelets is frostbit; rings too
Ni***s ’round the way call me Igloo, stick WHO?
“Brooklyn’s Finest” is a classic.
Jay-Z – 2 points, 5 total
“Itzsoweezee (HOT)” is aptly titled because it is HOT! Moreover, it still thumps. If it was an instrumental, it would outstanding; yet, the lyrics take it up another notch. On one hand they are emphasizing their view on the way the culture was going:
See them Cubans don’t care what y’all ni***s do
Colombians ain’t never ran with your crew
Why you acting all spicy and sheisty
The only Italians you knew was icees, ni***s price me
And then they re-emphasize it while also displaying their skills:
Now here’s the lead, y’all ni***a pray to hot rods and not God
While Versace play you bitches like Yahtzee
Crackin jokes like you Potsie
(When’s the last time you had Happy Days?)
Blazin‘ up your herb to escape the maze, but the problem stays
Think big get it big is my motto
You can go and play your lotto
I’ll be singin‘ like baby won’t you be mine
You’ll be pressin‘ rewind, you can never see mine
Keep your eyes focused, you can’t touch this or quote this
Style is crazy bogus so you can’t try to approach this
De La Soul – 2 points, 8 total
“Can I Live”: because “Itzsoweezee” was my favorite beat, I’ll go with my favorite beat on Reasonable Doubt – the Isaac Hayes sample track, “Can I Live”. Since I was vibin’ to the beat so tough, the slow down helped me realize the Jay-Z was more than a show-off, materialistic, wanna-be-don, rapper. It’s like all that was smoke & mirrors for the real genius behind the facade. This would become more and more apparent over time.
My crew and me commit atrocities like we got immunity
You guessed it, manifest it
In tangible goods, platinum Rolex’d it
We don’t lease, we buy the whole car, as you should
My confederation, dead a nation
Explode on detonation, overload the mind of a said patient
When it boils to steam, it comes to it
We all fiends, gotta do it: even righteous minds go through this
True this, the streets school us to spend our money foolish
Bond with jewelers and watch for intruders
I stepped it up another level, meditated like a Buddhist
Jay-Z – 2 points, 7 total
HOW DID IT AGE?
Despite your preference, both of these albums aged about the same. Lyrically and sonically, they both continue to resonate with their fans. For me, particularly back in ’96, I was gaining an awareness of how wide Hip Hop’s influence was becoming. As a soon-to-be teacher, I was acutely sensitive about our responsibility in the messages we share. While writing this, I kept getting stuck between De La’s message and Jay-Z’s craft.
To help me sift through the stalemate, I got on the horn with my guys, John and Mike. As we chopped it up, they brought up the notion of a greatest hits album. The idea being one greatest hits album covers the artist’s whole catalog. I’m going to expand on their idea – if we have a 20 song greatest hits CD, how many tracks on the De La one would come from Stakes is High? How many on the Jay-Z one would come from Reasonable Doubt? That broke the stalemate for me. With this assessment of how the albums aged, I shifted to a perspective of almost an intra-artist comparison of their other work. That shift in perspective led me to:
De La Soul – 1 point, 9 points
Jay-Z – 2 point, 9 points
GAME-CHANGER of PACE-KEEPER
After Stakes is High, I worked my way back and listened to previous De La albums and noticed that they grew with each release. They are artists, not caricatures. Due to their steady and impressive evolution, Stakes is High is a pace-keeper.
I really can’t pinpoint when the mafioso thing took off in Hip Hop. I’m a Detroit native, whose favorite local rappers, AWOL, wore “full-length minks and beaver hats.” So stylistically, the whole laid back, grown-a** man, who has his finances and his relationships with ladies under control – that persona was not new to me. However, on a national scale that spanned from chucks & khakis to Timberlands & camouflage jackets, Reasonable Doubt was a game-changer. Although Nas was already a known and respected MC, Jay-Z took the Brooklyn MC baton from B.I.G. and ran with toward record-breaking success. In the void of B.I.G.’s absence, Jay-Z was staking a serious claim as the King of New York.
De La Soul – 1 point, 10 total
Jay-Z – 2 points, 11 total
This exercise in nostalgia prompts a bit of reflection. Back in ’96, I bought De La first. I saw it as a “let-me-see-if-all-the-hype-is-for-real” purchase. I didn’t buy Reasonable Doubt until years later because I erroneously assumed Jay-Z was one-dimensional. After calculating the categories, while I still should have and would have purchased both, Reasonable Doubt should have been the first purchase.
I was a De La Soul fan so I bought Stakes is High first. The flow of their CDs was non stop and I loved that. From skits to interludes, to the music, it flowed. At the same time, I was vibing off In My Lifetime maxi single I got once I met JayZ when he came to Hampton University. I heard Aint No Ni**a but it really didnt appeal to me. I listened because it was in mass rotation everywhere. However once I bought Reasonable Doubt, I listened and heard Can’t Knock the Hustle, Politics as Usual, and then Brooklyn’s Finest (I still remember the order of this album)….I was sold; everything was extra after that and it didnt disappoint. Reasonable Doubt (to me) will go down as one of the greatest hip hop albums EVER. Stakes is High needs more credit as a classic from the masses though. It is truly a top ummm 30 album of all time in hip hop.